Sight Reading with Patricia Carter

I had the great honor of meeting Patricia Carter (Zagorski) during the 2010-2011 school year, when I invited myself to observe some of her class piano teaching. Her enthusiastic style and expertise at teaching sight reading had become known to me through a few mutual friends and I was excited to see her in action. At the time, I was new to teaching class piano and desperately looking for ways to make my classes more productive and interesting. During the two days I was with her, Professor Carter exhibited more energy than most teachers half her age, as well as a keen desire to see her students succeed. Much of what I later incorporated into my own class piano teaching came from my brief interactions with her.

During her lengthy career at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Professor Carter published five books on sight reading that thoroughly outline her philosophy on the subject. The two most easily available of these books are Sight Reading Homophonic Texture at the Keyboard Elementary Level (Walker Publishing, 1998) and Sight Reading Hymn Texture (Walker Publishing, 1993, revised 2006). (Her other 3 volumes are no longer in print and quite difficult/expensive to obtain.)

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Carter’s books, regardless of what texture or style they are addressing, follow a couple of key principles. First, pulse is constant and must not be violated. While this is obvious, she goes to great lengths to state and restate this point. She references various stable pulses in the natural world (heartbeats, etc.) and even goes so far as to talk about “listening for the universal pulse.” Perhaps this redundancy (and esoteric verbiage) is overkill. And yet, if we examined our student populations, what is one of their greatest universal weaknesses? Steady tempo. I’m challenged by Carter’s tenacity on this point. Do I really spend enough time focusing on pulse, teaching my students to not only hear a pulse, but to also actualize it in their playing.

Dalcroze Eurhythmics works a lot on actualizing rhythm within the body – feeling the rhythm, in essence. Many of us, however, don’t have that training, and haven’t set up our studio situations with it in mind. What can we do to actualize steady beat in our students? One thing we can is to insure we teach all rhythm patterns (whether new or familiar) within a pulse. Rather than a triplet in isolation, perhaps a triplet followed by a quarter note or two, so students hear immediately how the rhythm works in context. Most teaching methods introduce dotted quarter-eighth rhythms this way, but perhaps we should be teaching more rhythms in this manner.

(Side note. If you need more rhythm exercises for your students, consider investing in a copy of Robert Starer’s Basic Rhythm Training (Hal Leonard, 1986). It’s money well spent. Plus, if you have your students tap the pulse (written stems-down in the exercises) with one hand and tap the rhythms (stems up) with the other, you’re really developing steady-pulse actualization in your students.)

Back to Carter. After articulating the uncompromising nature of pulse, Carter moves to discussing keyboard patterns. This is a skill I picked up reading choral music from the gospel tradition that had both written out keyboard parts and chord symbols. Simply, it’s the art of reducing what you see to the basic patterns out of which its made, then filling in the details. You have to frame the house before you can paint it, right? Carter, in both her written materials and her in-person teaching, instructs students to see the patterns in the music they’re reading. A great example I use of this is Clementi’s C Major Sonata. The first two measures outline a second inversion C chord. The third and fourth measures are a C scale, running between G and G (with a turnaround in the middle). Measure 8 is a G major scale straightaway, while in measure 9, the left hand plays an Alberti Bass on a first inversion D major chord. Lastly, measure 15 is a straightforward G major arpeggio. This kind of reducing, whether for use in sight reading, memorization, or repertoire familiarization, is often not emphasized enough. Many students (my childhood self included) were not encouraged to see patterns. In Carter’s pedagogical world, however, patterns are everything.

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I encourage you this week, to help a student see a pattern. Perhaps a student who has been wrestling with the same piece for weeks. Or the one continues to miss the same leap or finger crossing. How can we help them locate these patterns more regularly?

This is a skill I use almost daily in my role as an accompanist. So often, when sight reading a new piece, you encounter a passage not immediately playable at sight. Perhaps the work in question contains a complicated sixteenth-note passage or a left hand written in jumping octaves. If I can locate the patterns in the passages, however, I can play something in the moment that will work until I have time to work out the specific notes. Also, the noticing of the pattern will help my hands when I am playing the specific notes, to move to the correct positions with ease. These patterns, as Carter teaches them, need not only to be seen, but also felt in the hands, which leads to the extensive fingering and pattern recognition charts that precede many of her volumes.

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Carter walks students through this pattern recognition in details in her book Sight Reading Homophonic Texture at the Keyboard Elementary Level. Using 18 specific examples, students will start to recognize and actualize chord and scalar passages.

Lastly, Carter emphasizes not looking at the keyboard while sight reading (and while performing in any context where you are using music). This point is directly related to feeling the patterns that you’ve recognized. If, after all, I see a dominant seventh chord arpeggio, and I feel what that pattern is under my fingers, why do I need look down to double check? In my own teaching and sight reading, this sense of feeling my way around keyboard by patterns is essential. If you’ve never tried to play a moderately complex piece of music without looking down at your hands (i.e. to play it by feel), I challenge you this week to see what such an exercise might change about your own sense of keyboard topography.

Of course, all three of these points are related. It is very challenging to maintain a completely steady pulse if you’re constantly looking down at your hands to find your place. The lag time between head tilts alone would subvert your pulse. And it’s hard to not look down if you can’t feel the patterns you’re seeing in your fingertips. And if you’re not reading in a tempo, the need to see and feel those patterns is never enforced since you just read note at a time. You can see how this circle of (sight reading) life works.

One more point before I leave you to explore Carter’s work for yourself.

In her excellent volume, Sight Reading Hymn Texture, Carter creates a very specific framework for learning to read 4-part chorale texture. This system would be useful for the budding church musician or newbie choir director or accompanist. She suggests taking four passes at a new hymn in order to absorb its material. Each pass is printed separately in her book, using darker and lighter-colored noteheads. During pass 1, you take in all the material, but you only play soprano and bass. During pass 2 (see picture below), you take in more material, but you only play complete chords on the downbeats. When you arrive at pass 3, you attempt to play everything except the tenor part (since it often involves 10ths and odd leaps). On the final pass, you play everything. Each pass involves metronomic attention to the pulse and looking only at the score (not your hands). Learning to read this particular texture with this underlying structure is revelatory (I mean this literally – it will reveal so many things to you about your reading and playing and then it change you and your students’ lives).

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I truly hope that Carter’s methods (which capture only a fraction of her true spark for life and love of teaching piano) inspire you and yours. And now, to paraphrase my dissertation advisor, “to work!”